History

Scotland's double pride

Ian R Mitchell looks at the relationship between two Scottish icons, the national bard and the national dram.
By Ian R Mitchell
Shortly after his death in 1796 Robert Burns emerged as the undisputed national bard of Scotland. The foundation of the first Burns Club took place in 1801. This was the Greenock Burns Club, later known as the Mither Club.As such clubs spread, Burns’ Suppers soon became a national event (at least in Lowland Scotland) on Burns Nicht, held on the anniversary of the poet’s birthday, the 25th of January. Round about the same time, whisky also emerged as the national dram of Scotland. Though it had been distilled for several centuries, it had taken much longer for whisky to gain that pre-eminent affection in Scotland quickly achieved by Burns.For centuries the preferred drink of the upper classes was claret, and that of the poor “tippenny”, a cheap ale, but whisky gradually emerged as the favoured alcohol in the country.This is reflected in Burns’ poetry, where his praise of the craitur out-matches his praise of any other form of alcohol. Indeed, at a Burns Supper anywhere in the world, it would be unthinkable to toast the haggis with anything other than whisky, the poet’s favourite beverage.Few, if any, poets have sung the praises of whisky as did Robert Burns. Just as he had claimed that many Scots virtues – such as martial valour – stemmed from the consumption of the national dish, the humble haggis, so Rabbie attributed several benefits to the consumption of whisky. The first of these was good health. Duncan Forbes of Culloden had had his distillery burnt by Jacobites in 1745, and as compensation was exempt from spirit duty, making his tipple cheaper than other drams.When this concession was abolished in 1784, Burns felt impelled to warn of calamitous consequences for Scotland’s health, Thee, Ferintosh! O sadly lost!Scotland lament frae coast tae coast Now colic grips, and barkin hoast* May kill us a’ For loyal Forbes’ chartered boast Is tae’en awa!(Scotch Drink). Barkin hoast = severe cough In the same poem Burns attributes his own poetic creativity, at times of writer’s block, to the beneficial influence of the product of the whisky still, the “wimpling worm” O Whisky! Soul o’ plays and pranks!Accept a Bardie’s grateful thanks!When wanting thee, what tuneless cranks Are my poor verses!Thou comes- they rattle I’ the ranks At ither’s airses!-and elsewhere he wrote of the “museinspirin’ aqua-vitae”.In Burns’ poem The Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer occurs probably his most famous line on the subject of the national dram – “Freedom and whisky gang thegither.” Oft quoted, but who knows the context and hence the true meaning of the phrase? In 1786 the British parliament was debating the level of excise on whisky, and Burns’ poem was addressed to the 45 Scottish M.P.s at Westminster, asking them to stand up for Scotland’s interests. In the poem he argued that it was the consumption of whisky which had made Scotland fight for her freedom in the past, Let half-starv’d slaves in warmer skies See future wines, rich-clust’ring rise; Their lot auld Scotland ne’er envies’ But blythe and frisky, She sees her freeborn, martial boys Tak aff their whisky.And in this poem whisky becomes an icon, a symbol of the Scottish national identity.Defence of the national drink by the Scottish M.P.s is portrayed as a defence of Scotland’s national economic interests, against the English gin-distillers, plotting to tax whisky out of business.In what is possibly Burn’s greatest poem and certainly his most famous, Tam O Shanter he further attributes to the consumption of whisky the waxing of courage. Indeed he clearly distinguishes between the courage brought about by the consumption of ale, and that superior courage coming from whisky drinking, Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!What dangers thou canst make us scorn!Wi’ tippeny, we fear nae evil; Wi’ usquebae we’ll face the devil!However, though on one level Tam O Shanter is a hymn to conviviality and uncontrolled drinking, the moral of the tale is really one of “responsible drinking.” As a consequence of his over-indulgence Tam is almost dragged off to hell by the witches he encounters in Alloway Kirk on his ride home. This is when he bawls out drunkenly “Weel done, Cuttysark!” at the sight of an attractive witch with a short, revealing skirt (cutty sark.) Only by passing over water, and losing his mare’s tail in the chase, does Tam escape.Burns concludes the poem with a warning, Now, wha this tale o’ truth shall read, Each man and mother’s son takk heed; Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d Or cutty-sarks rin in your mind.Think! ye may buy your joys o’er dear; Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.There was a more serious side to this in that Burns, though here and elsewhere advocating self-restraint in drinking, himself was unable to practise what he preached, and became increasingly alcohol-dependant with time. In Drink and the Devil he gives full vent to his self disgust, Yestreen, alas! I was sae fu’ I could but yisk and wink; And now, this day, sair, sair I rue, The weary, weary drink. (yisk= hiccup.) Burns’ over-indulgence brought him shame as well as depression, as when he misbehaved in company, often sadly with regard to the female members of a social gathering, and finding himself subsequently haunted by the memory of his drunkenness.In a letter of apology to Mrs Robert Riddel, he wrote after such a debauch, Madam, I write you from the regions of Hell, amid the horrors of the damned., on account of my conduct yesternight under your roof. An intoxicated man is the vilest of beasts.Regret! Remorse! Shame! Ye three hell hounds that ever dog my steps and bay at my heels, spare me! Spare me!Forgive the offenses, and pity the perdition of, Madam, your humble slave, R.B.This contradiction in Burns is echoed in that, for much of the latter part of his life, he was actually an exciseman, or gauger, intent on suppressing the illegal alcohol trade, but unable to curb his own excessive use of the product. Burns was the Ploughman Poet, a poor peasant farmer who failed to make ends meet from his pen, despite his fame.When struggling to make a living farming, he took up a job as an exciseman at £50 a year.Given Burns’ attitude to whisky it is possibly unsurprising that from time to time he was lax in the execution of his duties.On one occcasion Burns entered the cottage of an old dame suspected of selling illict whisky and asked for a dram and some bread and cheese.When he offered to pay, the crone replied the he owed “Naething ava for the whisky, but saxpence for the bread and cheese.” Laughingly Burns told her “Sin on, and fear not,” and left the house.On another occasion he apprehended a whisky smuggler with his cart, and the man so moved Burns with the story of his poverty that the exciseman gave him a pound instead of arresting him.In 1794 Burns moved to Dumfries, where his wages rose to £70 a year, more than ever he made from his poetry.That his heart was not in his work as a gauger was shown by the fact that in Dumfries he wrote the poem The Exciseman which celebrates the devil running off with the exciseman to the delight of the local population.We’ll makk our maut, we’ll brew our drink We’ll dance, and sing, and rejoice, man; And mony braw thanks to the muckle black deil That danced awa’ wi’ th’Exciseman Burns wrote some of the finest love poems in any language, yet his treatment of women, who found him irresistable, was dreadful.He also wrote some of the best drinking songs ever, praising whisky in these above all other drink, but he was unable to enjoy the craitur without excess.Rabbie was a rogue, but he was aware of his flaws, of which women and drink were the main, and himself hoped that “Whatever may be my failings, may they ever be those of a generous heart and an independent mind.”